3D printing has been around for a while now. Believe it or not, the first 3D prints were created in the early eighties. Like many technologies, it’s gotten better, matured and is now mainstream. Healthcare is one of those fields where 3D printing is being used in many of its specialties, from printing prosthetics, implants, hearing aids, to a process called bioprinting where 3D printers are being tested so they can eventually even produce organs such as the liver.
Using 3D printing to revolutionize shoulder replacement surgery
In the field of orthopedics, a new type of shoulder replacement surgery is being pioneered by a Miami based doctor at the Miami Orthopedics & Sports Medicine Institute, a part of Baptist Health. I met with Dr. John Uribe M.D., chief medical executive of the Institute to learn about how he and his team are applying 3D printing to revolutionize this field. Here is what I learned.
I went into the room where they are doing the 3D printing and saw a busy Ultimaker 3 printer printing a patient’s humeral head so they can study it and see how the implant would fit the patient. Yes, the actual patient’s bones that are going to be operated on. I know you are wondering, how can they get a replica of the patient’s bones? Thanks to modern imagery, a CT scan generates a 3D model of the bones in question and those are then sent to the 3D printer. This is as close of a replica to the patient’s actual bones as it gets.
If you haven’t seen a 3D printer before in action, it’s pretty amazing to see how it builds the replica of the bone layer by thin layer, thousands of passes later, to create the perfect model. It takes hours and hours to create each replica but the results are pretty mind-blowing. Once the bones are printed in the 3D printer, the doctor can then study the issue and precisely plan the surgery. It’s interesting to see because, if for example, the humeral head of the patient is deformed, that’s what the 3D printed model is going to reflect. That way, the doctor can measure and figure out where the cuts are going to be made, exactly where the implants are going to be placed and how to make it more anatomic for the patient to regain as much mobility as possible and all of this is done before the surgery or after, to study the post-op recovery and outcome.
One cool thing about these printers is that in order to print an object in 3D, they need to build a supporting structure, so it doesn’t collapse while being printed. It’s like scaffolding being used for a building during construction. Once the bone replica is printed, it comes out with all these attachments that are printed from a different material. How do they get rid of it? The smartest solution ever, they are water-soluble! Just place the newly printed bones in water and in a little while, all the material used for scaffolding completely dissolves.
Practice makes perfect
This is a game-changer in the world of orthopedic surgery. Using this technology, doctors can create an exact replica of the bones they are going to be operating on. I see it as the equivalent of a flight simulator for doctors. You know how pilots get to practice for hours and hours without actually flying the actual plane? Planning a surgery with a 3D model can also reduce the time in the operating room since the doctor has already rehearsed this same surgery specifically.
What are the patient outcomes?
According to Dr. Uribe, the team at the Institute is running different research projects to determine how best to utilize 3D printing but I think that by being able to plan and practice on a 3D model, the doctor will be more efficient during the actual procedure, all the measurements are precisely made for both surgery and any implants and all the necessary steps have been rehearsed before. The word is predictability. In the end, the patients speak for themselves and if their shoulder movement is restored as anatomically as possible, 3D printing did its job, with a little help from the doctors too. 😉